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Cotton, George Witherage (1821–1892)

by J. B. Hirst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

George Witherage Cotton (1821-1892), by Walter Scott-Barry, c1880

George Witherage Cotton (1821-1892), by Walter Scott-Barry, c1880

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6319

George Witherage Cotton (1821-1892), land agent and politician, was born on 4 February 1821 at Staplehurst, Kent, England, son of Samuel Cotton and his wife Lydia, née Boorman. He was taught first by a Congregationalist minister and the local rector, then apprenticed to a carpenter and later spent two years at Wesley College, Sheffield. He worked in a London business house until he migrated with his parents to South Australia in 1848. His wife, whom he had married in 1846, and infant son died soon after their arrival. In 1848 he married Elizabeth, daughter of William Mitchell; they had nine children.

For thirteen years Cotton worked as a carpenter at Willunga and store-keeper on Hindmarsh Island. In 1862 he returned to Adelaide and established a business in land. The business flourished. Cotton became a leading layman in the Wesleyan Church, with which he had been associated in the country. In 1865 he called a meeting of laymen to consider the purchase of a site for a Wesleyan college. He bought the land for Prince Alfred College and was secretary of the school in its first twenty years.

In 1879 Cotton retired from business, and after an overseas tour successfully stood in the Legislative Council elections of 1882. In the depression years which followed he took an interest in the unemployed, joined the Land Reform Association and like many others read Alfred Russel Wallace's Land Nationalisation and Henry George's Progress and Poverty. He rejected George's panacea of the single tax, but Wallace convinced him of the superiority of smallholdings and the desirability of giving all men the right to lease a holding from the state. On these convictions Cotton formulated his working men's blocks scheme: the government, from unused reserves and crown land, should offer blocks of up to twenty acres (8 ha) to working men at low rents. Income from such blocks, though at first only a supplement to wages, would with the progress of agricultural science ultimately support a man and his family. Then the blocks would form the basis of a new society of independent producers and co-operative associations. To put people on the land was for Cotton the only way to avoid the revolution and chaos which he expected to result from the conflict of capital and labour. The title of his pamphlet, Small Holdings, the Mainstay of Individuals and Nations (Adelaide, 1888), epitomizes his views.

Cotton campaigned for his scheme in and outside parliament. In 1885 the government accepted it. The Homestead League was formed, with Cotton as secretary, to assist working men and blockers. The league wanted the government to purchase land for subdivision into blocks and to lend money to blockers. Through country branches of the league Cotton organized a campaign in favour of this policy at the 1890 elections. He was rewarded by the Repurchase Act of 1890 and the Block-holders' Loans Act of 1891. Blocks were surveyed and occupied throughout the colony: in Adelaide's suburbs, at the edge of country towns and in the open country. In 1896 about 12,900 people, or nearly 4 per cent of the population, lived on them. Thereafter the number declined.

Particularly after the strikes of 1890 conservative opinion became more favourable to Cotton's proposals. The early Labor movement had supported him from the beginning. Presidents and secretaries of the Trades and Labor Council, formed in 1884, served on the Homestead League's executive. The extension of the working men's blocks scheme was included in the first platform of the Labor Party, drawn up in 1891. The readiness of Cotton and the league in seeking measures to help working men in the 1880s was one of the reasons why the Labor Party felt no need to declare its independence in the 1890s.

Other matters than smallholdings attracted Cotton's reforming zeal. He advocated a state bank of issue, technical education, a strong government department of labour and boards of conciliation and arbitration. He was sometimes called a socialist, but this was plainly an inappropriate label for one who to the end, as his last pamphlet, The Obligations of a Civil Government (Adelaide, 1892), shows, believed in the supreme importance of putting people on the land. In this way the state could best discharge its obligation of providing all citizens with a comfortable life. This distributist philosophy had a wide appeal in Cotton's day and has become settled policy since, realized in the Australian suburb rather than the country.

Cotton was not an effective speaker. Though he read widely he neither digested nor presented his material well. He owed his success to organizing ability and belief in the righteousness of his cause. He was short-tempered and quick to see evil purposes behind any opposition. In the 1880s he left the Wesleyans, whose general indifference to reform enraged him, and declared a new faith: 'I worship a living Christ in the person of every child, however it may have been born into the world'. His achievement and his faith are the more impressive because of his age: he was 61 when he first entered parliament. He died at Adelaide on 15 December 1892.

Select Bibliography

  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 Oct 1888
  • J. B. Hirst, G. W. Cotton and the Workingmen's Blocks (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1963).

Citation details

J. B. Hirst, 'Cotton, George Witherage (1821–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cotton-george-witherage-3269/text4953, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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